Denzel Washington’s Fences is a good exercise in separating the merits of a stage work from its adaptation. It’s one of the more acclaimed plays in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, his ten-part chronicle of black life in each decade of the last century, and it’s sure to outlive any re-interpretation.
Using the movie as my introduction to Wilson’s play, the experience felt rich but imperfect. If you had no idea this was a play, you’d quickly guess it. August Wilson adapted his own play into a screenplay years ago, and Tony Kushner reportedly revised it when the movie finally went into production. Kushner and Washington probably didn’t want to invent new scenes Wilson didn’t write. So the movie’s appropriately claustrophobic, confined to virtually one spot just like Troy feels he is. But so much action happens off-screen that it becomes distracting.
Most scenes take place in Troy and Rose Maxson’s Pittsburgh house and backyard. The year is 1957, and Troy works as a garbageman to put food on the table for his wife and son. A college recruiter is coming soon to scout his son Cory for a football scholarship, but Troy distrusts Cory’s chances; he thinks his own black skin held him back from a Major League Baseball career. When Cory fights back against his father’s interference, Troy tells him—in baseball parlance—he only has two strikes left.
Troy Maxson embodies the 1950s black husband and father, working twice as hard to earn a living and raise a family, with a healthy disdain for white America. Despite his efforts (like becoming the first African-American driver at his company), he can’t make enough to achieve greater mobility. In his mind, he’s stuck on first base, underachieving and unrewarded, no matter how mighty his swing. Washington gives us a window into Troy’s ego; his myopia is obvious beneath all that bluster. He’s 62 compared to the 53-year-old character, and he uses his age to his advantage, giving a weary, beleaguered read to Troy’s scenes. Opposite him, Viola Davis is even better, most moving in her wordless reactions to Troy’s transgressions. Davis’s Rose is no doormat; she’s a woman who sees the good and the bad, and takes both in stride. It’s about time we’re seeing her in roles like this.
We’re told about some of the biggest plot points like we’re in the theater. Troy has an affair with another woman, and she later dies in childbirth delivering his baby. We never meet the other woman. Other key moments—like Troy consigning his brother to an institution—are also unseen. Many faithful play adaptations work on screen when it’s the revelations that spark the drama: A Streetcar Named Desire, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Glengarry Glen Ross. Here, the plot happens somewhere else, and we notice the absence.
I also think Washington staged the actors before he thought about camera placement. The opening scene contains strange camera choices; Davis is sometimes cut off at the edge of the screen. Washington picks and chooses where to “open up” the movie, but it’s somewhat arbitrary. Nonetheless, the impressive cast, especially Jovan Adepo as Cory and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s longtime friend Jim, are worth the watch.
I won’t object to future August Wilson movies, especially if Washington and Davis tackle them (at least as actors). But I’d recommend a stronger director first.